We are living an illusion. We see the road ahead and we see the ground beneath and imagine, that it is firm and that it goes on forever.
But the horizon is a funhouse mirror and the ground is a knifes edge. Still, we walk along it and tell ourselves it’s solid. Until we’re pushed, a tiny tap really is all it takes, and we’re fighting for balance, our arms flailing around the air, looking for a handhold until we fall off one side or another.
“Your doctors office called”, “HR wants to see you”, “There’s a police officer at the door”.
And right then plans and hopes and dreams and the bullshit we tell ourselves all give way to the relentless math of the universe.
And the universe doesn’t care who we voted for, the universe doesn’t care what race we are the universe doesn’t care if we were rich or poor or good or evil or if we marched with King or cured polio. It doesn’t care about justice or injustice because it doesn’t care about us.
We, collectively, all of us together, are a cipher in time and space. Do you imagine that King Henry VIII is somewhere paying for beheading two of his wives? Do you imagine you will pay a price for that spider you whacked with a shoe? Laid side by side there is little to distinguish them.
We don’t exist. That’s the math. That’s the scale of the numbers. It’s going to fill in the missing side of the polynomial whether we like it or not but the truth is it doesn’t take much. We live on a planet that circles an un remarkable star that doesn’t even register within one arm of an unremarkable spiral galaxy among billions in space…space that continually confounds the physical laws we’ve made to comprehend it.
We are extraordinarily alone. In the cold. Walking our knifes edge. And all we have is each other and only for a nano second. And once we realize that…it’s always too late.
I was sitting in the First Class Lounge watching the carnage at the bar. One by one men, traveling by themselves, approached the blonde at the end of the bar and one by one they went down in flames.
She had her back to me but she’d gotten up a few times so I got a look at her and man was she pretty…just a knockout. She wasn’t wearing a ring, and her and the bartender were getting along just fine so I figured she couldn’t be all that mean.
So I go up to the bartender and I ask him what’s up with the blonde and he gives me a blank stare. So I get out my wallet and slide a twenty across the bar. He looks at me and says “you seen the body count?” I slide another twenty his way. He pockets the bills and says “she’s watching the Red Sox play the Yankees. She’s in here once a month and we talk baseball.” So I ask him “Is she an iceberg?” “No she’s funny, but every one of those meatballs asked her a stupid question when she just wants to watch the ball game.” I thought for a minute then asked him who she was rooting for. “Die hard Red Sox fan. Good luck pal, nice knowing you” he says.
I took the stool next to her and said “Red Sox playing eh?” She doesn’t even look at me. She’s just staring at the TV and just kind of grunts. So I sit there next to her staring at the TV for like two minutes. Finally I say to no one in particular “I hate the fucking Red Sox”. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even turn my way. She just reached over and put her cigarette out in my drink.
The ushers hustled everyone to their seats. They wore the Jones Beach State Park uniform. Blue and white. There were seahorse emblems on their hats and epaulets.
Limousines were parked in their special lot while VIP guests ate 5 star meals in the dining room. Soon they would be whisked to their special box seats right up front with each box manned by an attendant to bring food and drink at their whim.
Guy Lambardo’s Royal Canadians were warming up in the orchestra pit on the audience side of the moat. They were the house orchestra for the lineup of Broadway shows produced especially for Jones Beach Marine Theater. These were not travelling shows, these were dedicated productions starring the biggest names in musical theater. There was a hum of outboard motors as the ramps between the stage and the shore were retracted from the moat.
Suddenly the orchestra launched into a fanfare and the house lights dropped. The only lighting was from the stand lights in the orchestra pit and navigation lights out in the bay. Suddenly there is the roar of twin marine engines at full power. A spotlight searches the water until it lands on a speeding wooden Chris Craft runabout. Guy Lambardo is at the helm and he comes to a dramatic stop right in front of the conductors box. He hops out of the boat and onto the stage and immediately he strikes up the Star Spangled Banner.
The spectacle complete, the lights come down and the Orchestra begins the overture. And this was what it was like to see a show at the Jones Beach Marine Theater. And this was a State Park, one of the finest in the world, which is just as Robert Moses had intended. People will rave about Radio City Music Hall, but in its day, Radio City was just another big theater in a city that was full of big theaters. The Marine Theater was something totally unique.
It still operates today as a concert venue. The moat has been filled in with seats and the dining rooms are gone. It is undoubtedly an amazing venue for an outdoor concert, situated on a bay next to the Atlantic. But at one time, it was something only Robert Moses could have pulled off.
I’ve never fallen out of love so fast. Yeah she was beautiful, yes she was a nice young lady, but she’d crossed a line that revealed her true character.
Selling books door to door was always going to be a sketchy enterprise. But despite my well known cynicism, I fell for the lure of a summer of hard work and adventure coupled with making a boat load of money. It was a rah rah affair, a real believe in yourself, what’s his name bullshit festival.
We targeted the most vulnerable, never a well to do neighborhood, and never when a husband was home. If you can think of a more crass approach I’d love to hear it. When I managed to get inside it was most often a lonely woman who wanted company. I could never close those sales…maybe they reminded me too much of someone.
The net of all this was I was always having to go on calls with the local sales manager, another student not much older than me, so she could show me how to close. I was in love with her, and her roommate, another crew member was, possibly, in love with me. I’d go over and sleep on their couch the night before we went out on calls. They’d make breakfast for me. Was this supposed to be punishment? I was in fricking guy Heaven. I got sent out with the roommate once…that never happened again because I talked her into goofing off all day. So I went out with Claire, and pretended to be interested in selling books.
The morning went well, we sold three or four sets and I took the lead while she watched and coached afterward. We split the commission, which was fair because she would have sold at least that many on her own. And then a very young mother came to the door with her baby in her arms. She was trying to feed her baby but listened politely to Claire’s spiel.
Let me stop right here and mention what really got to me on some calls. Usually when you got in, they knew you were selling something educational and they wanted to be good mothers. And they could almost never afford it. We had methods to get around it, but that was my problem, I’d look at this struggling young mother and I couldn’t pull the trigger, “you’re right ma’am…the library down the street is probably your best bet, and so on”.
This was one of those situations, this poor women was all wrapped up in guilt…she wanted those books for her baby who could start reading soon but as she put it, “I’m already having to choose between food and rent”. That’s where I would have just hung out for awhile and chatted because she was sad and pretty and who could resist that? But this wasn’t about me, this was Claire’s sale and she bored in for the kill “we just need a deposit”, the woman shook her head and said “ I only have eight dollars to last the rest of the week”. “We’ll take it!”. And so Claire did take it.
I don’t remember exactly what happened when we got outside, other than I was furious. I do know it was only around 1 in the afternoon and we had 8 more hours of sales calls to make. But not me…that was my last call ever. I quit on the spot and hitchhiked back to the apartment I shared with the male crew members about 40 miles away, found a Greyhound and went home without a job. On the way home I missed Claire’s roommate…we’d had fun together, but whenever I think of Claire, I can only think of how unfeeling she turned out to be.
Like all shared adventures the story morphs over time. The only constant was there was indeed a bear. Every time Jack, Anna and I get together we remember it differently. But no one questions the details because we are usually telling the tale for an audience and what do a few small facts matter? The bear was eating. The bear had cubs. Jack and I walked calmly back down the trail and informed Anna that there was a bear and we should all remain calm and withdraw to a safe distance. Jack and I tore down the trail dropping our packs and blew right past Anna screaming “There’s a fucking bear!!!!”. Jack got a picture of the bear on it’s hind legs growling menacingly. Jack only got a picture of sky cause he was too busy running. Jack and the bear posed for a selfie. Mere dressing for the story. But something you can absolutely depend on. With every telling, the bear gets bigger.
Brian stared tentatively at the globe. He could hear the police coming up the stairs, so if he was going to do it the time was now. His mother, long ago, had told him the stories, the powers that the old tattered globe harbored. But they were just stories right? Now a pounding at the door, last chance. He took a deep breath and gave it a spin, it wobbled, spinning slowly. The door splintered, guns were pointed his way, he tapped the globe with his finger and closed his eyes.
“Uncle, are you being silly again?” The little girl laughed and skipped down the hallway, the green ribbons in her dark curly hair bouncing along. He watched her go all the way down the long hallway. Suddenly the fog lifted and he remembered the globe. Damn. He should have looked where he’d put his finger down because he had no idea where he was. Or for that matter when he was. The only thing he knew was that he must belong here because the girl had recognized him. He decided the best thing was to follow her.
“Darling”. He whirled around and found himself face to face with a stunning woman. She had bright red hair, that cascaded over her shoulders in waves. She wore a long green dress that placed her, he thought, in the mid 19th century. As she took him by the arm and he realized they were married, he felt as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
A year later, the entire country was amazed when the royal couple presented them with a princess and heiress to the throne. For five years they had resigned themselves that they were incapable. But now this miracle, and then another and still another.
“What would you change darling?” He looked into his wife’s gray-green eyes, just as beautiful as they’d been on that crazy day 23 years before. “What do you mean?” She sighed, “you are so dense sometimes…it’s a good thing I love you. What would you change about our marriage, our courtship, our children?” He stopped to consider. It might have been 23 years ago but he remembered that day like it was yesterday. He thought of the globe. He thought of what drove him to spin it in desperation and he regretted nothing.
He took her hand and squeezed it hard. “Nothing. I wouldn’t change a single thing”. The Queen stood and smiled “good answer”.
He watched her walk away, and he realized that the old globe had not let him escape to some random place and time. It had brought him home.
Departing on Track 9 for Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Matawan. North Jersey Coast Train…Alllllll Aboard! You’d take the escalator down even further below ground to track level, and as you descended the sounds of electric motors idling and the hissing of air brakes would get louder. There was a smell as well, a combination of ozone and steam from car heaters and head end power plants.
Train crew would direct you to the right cars “Red Bank last coach, all other stations forward, smoker at the front”. The train was a Pennsylvania Railroad consist, served with a mixture of heavy weight coaches and anything serviceable from the coach yard. This was the waning days of privately run passenger service in the US and they did the best they could as they hemorrhaged cash. In 3 years the government would take over all passenger service.
At the head of this motley assemblage was a GG1, the iconic high speed electric capable of pulling the more important corridor trains at 125mph, the standard express speed in these parts. But this was no express, and we would be lucky to hit 60. But the beautiful Raymond Loewy designed GG1 would keep us on time and serve until we hit diesel territory where it would be swapped out.
Exiting the labyrinth of tracks and switches under Penn Station and Madison Square Garden we entered the tunnel under the Hudson. The GG1 got to stretch its legs here because there were only two tracks to the west out of this huge city and even lowly locals were expected to step lively, making way for their betters…fast Metroliners and what remained of the posh name trains like “The Congressional” or “The Broadway Limited”.
From there it was on to another Penn Station, this one in Newark where we’d wait for any late connecting trains to show up. Newark was a mysterious place and it wasn’t until I was nearly 60 that I got a good look at it…even though by then I lived far away. Crime ridden, it was nonetheless fascinating because it hosted a myriad of rail lines both commuter and long distance. The long distance lines are gone other than the Amtrak North East corridor lines and the through trains that go as far as Chicago and New Orleans. But the commuter trains are still ubiquitous, labyrinthine lines crisscrossing everywhere across the region.
Eventually the GG1 would screech into South Amboy where the catenary ended and diesels were required. The GG1 would uncouple and a diesel would slam into the first car, hookup it’s air lines and hotel power and off we’d go. It would take all of five minutes and we’d be off to the South along the shore route.
Going South, for whatever reason, it was always at night. I made this trip 6 or 7 times a year in the 3 years I was at DeVitte Military Academy and I was always by myself. I went from 12 to 14 in that time period and there were a few misadventures…mostly due to major delays but I always got where I needed to. It took a bus, a subway train the Coast train out of Penn and then a cab when we reached Matawan NJ.
But then there was Capt. Boosie. He was one of the teachers, he handled 5th grade and since I started in 6th I didn’t have him. Tall and stereotypically Dutch, he’d roar at miscreants “You bloody rotter”…or worse. He had a big stick in his room and though I don’t recall him ever using it, it was a major deterrent. Boosie had the perfect teacher creds to deal with young boys; be tall and carry a big stick. Today’s more squeamish parents may think the threat of a stick is a bit abusive, but I can assure you, we were all demons of the first order and would have shredded a weaker soul. And given tens of thousands of years of human existence, boys haven’t changed much in the last forty.
As intimidating as Boosie was, he was protective. Once I had to travel home to NY by myself to go to a wedding. I was in 6th grade and still a little young for a trip like that by myself, so I was to get on the train in Matawan and my Uncle would meet me at Penn Station in NY. But the train never got to NY, there was a bridge out so it terminated in Newark potentially leaving me stranded and alone. Boosie came over and got me and we both took the 3 trains it took to get home from there. It would have been rough without him.
That train was so long ago…it seems like so many lifetimes past.
He came to and looked around. He could make out a canopy of trees to either side, clear sky above and his ears were beginning to process the sounds around him. He heard rushing water and then some birds debating something that birds debate about. He realized where he was, at the middle of a rock slide, laying on his back, staring at the sky.
He was afraid to try and move…what if he couldn’t? What if he had broken a limb or worse? He wiggled everything. Check. Didn’t seem to be any blood. Check. He gingerly rolled his neck. Check. This was stupid he was either broken or he wasn’t. He jumped to his feet, and besides a sense of disorientation, he was fine. Then he looked around.
The slide had been massive; trees were down all around him in a swath that looked about 150 yards wide. He could see the rubble pile a long way down and that’s when his brain kicked in. In a panic he looked uphill. It was mostly clear to the top but there were a few trees and rocks above him that looked unstable. He seemed to be on a good spot but he couldn’t stay there as one of those trees or rocks could come down at anytime. So he started navigating carefully to his left facing uphill, keeping an eye on things. The footing was tricky…he had been extremely lucky to land where he had for he was learning just how unstable the slide zone was. But, after slipping along for about 15 minutes he was sitting on the uphill side of a large tree and felt sufficiently safe to fish a bottle of water from his pack. That’s when he heard her.
Crap. He’d been so wrapped up in getting himself to a safe spot that it hadn’t occurred to him that other hikers could be caught up as well. It was an out and back trail up to the top of the Mesa and he’d not seen more than a couple of other hikers. They’d been on the way down and unless they’d gone really slow they were surely clear of the zone. Whoever this was must have been on the way up. He yelled out “where are you?”. It seemed like forever before a voice came back “I’m trapped”. Definitely a woman. But where was she? Up? Down? On a positive note, since he was off to the side he only had to find her elevation and then he knew she’d be straight ahead. He needed to think. Duh. His cell phone. He fished it out and amazingly there was a signal, just one bar, but enough for texting. “He yelled again “are you hurt bad?”. “No, but I can’t walk.”
He had to move fast, hurt bad or not she could go into shock and it wasn’t that long until sunset when the temperature would plummet. He had a jacket but did she? Normally he would have her keep calling and he’d use his ears to triangulate her position, but wandering around playing hot/cold in the middle of a rock slide wasn’t going to happen. “Does your phone work?” A minute or so later “yes”. Thank god, “okay, I’m gonna yell out my number one digit at a time and then you text me. I have a plan”.
It took forever and now the sky was starting to darken. He was so tense that he busted out laughing when he got her confirmation text “I used a squirrel for your contact pic”. Well, at least she wasn’t panicking. She was sharp too, she’d figured out his plan, and before he could reply her next message came with a pin drop of her location. He entered the coordinates and now he had her “looks like ur downhill. On my way but I have 2 b careful. B dark, when I get close I’ll flip on flashlight, u yell when u see it”. Her message came back “Kk, I’ll just chill here and think about Aquaman, do u look like him”? Geez she was salty “save ur battery”.
There was a moon that night and the slide actually worked in their favor clearing a lighted path down the hardest part of the climb. He’d at first thought they should just wait until it got light, then he’d call 911 as soon as they got down far enough for a good signal. However he wasn’t a doctor and her leg looked pretty bad so he told her he’d rather not wait. Luckily she was pretty small so he was able to handle her piggyback but after 30 minutes it was getting tough.
She was keeping his mind off it by peppering him with questions and telling him her life story all the way down the hill. At one point he thought she was taking a breather but then she asked “what did you use for my picture”? He was confused, “what”? “My contact picture, what did you use, it’s not like you had a picture of me handy”? “I didn’t create a conta…”. “You mean a gorgeous woman gives you her number and you don’t save it as a contact?” He sighed, ” I didn’t know if…” “oh I see you didn’t know if I was pretty enough”, she huffed. “No! I didn’t know if you were hurt, that was my main concern”. She snorted “makes perfect sense. Why take up room on your phone for a chick that could kick off. Probably got a couple other Amys in there anyway, why confuse things. What do they look like”? His head was spinning “what does who look like”? “Your other girlfriends named Amy, come on keep up.” He started to protest but she was on him again, “fine you can delete those later, if you did make a contact whose picture would you choose”? Damn she was relentless “Lois Lane”…”oh that makes sense, which one? Be careful here”. He thought for a minute, “Amy Adams”. She laughed “touché!, well I can live with that”. Satisfied, she went back to telling him about a drunk beach vacation with her best friends.
It took another 20 minutes to get down to where the EMTs were waiting. “She’s got a compound fracture in her leg it looks like” one of the EMTs told him quietly off to the side. “What did you give her?” “What do you mean?” “For the pain, she should be screaming in agony”. He shook his head. The EMT whistled “that’s one tough lady”. She was loaded in the ambulance now and he went over to say goodbye. “What do you mean?” she rasped out, the pain finally getting to her. “You’re not coming with me? Oh I get it, it’s Amy”. He laughed, “There is no Amy”. “Then ride with me. And gimme your phone”
US Department of Agriculture. That’s what was printed on Food Stamps when they were actually physical paper currency. Actually, the word “Food Stamp” did not appear, the proper name was “Food Coupon”. I would know. They are what kept food on the table in our little household after my mother was disabled. But I know, people use them to abuse them. A few I suppose, but mostly, they were, and are, used to buy food. Do you doubt that?
Here I am as as a 12 year old boy. Now come along with me to Key Foods on Jamaica Avenue in Hollis, Queens. Come to the register, as I remove the multi-colored currency from my pocket and try to sneak it to the cashier who is annoyed. She is annoyed because it changes her flow. There are impatient people in line with actual money. They are watching. The bag boy is watching. They are all watching as she carefully counts out my change in the currency of poverty and hands it back to me. Look around to see if anyone from school has seen me, especially the girls. Grab the groceries with me and slink out of the store.
Now take that experience, multiply it by the lens of adolescence, that same lens that thinks every slight is the end of the world. Now tell me, that people want to be on Food Stamps.
One summer, during my college days I was starving. I had no money. I had no food. I lived in a dorm which was probably a salvation but it was hard to find a job. I was eligible for food stamps. I lived on puffed rice cereal, usually without milk or sugar rather than take food stamps. I knew, that hassle of trying to get them and the embarrassment of having to use them. No one wants that. People take them because they are desperate. Because they need to feed their children. Because they are less fortunate. So stop being selfish , and enjoy the fact that we live in a country where we can afford to help people less fortunate.
Don’t get me started on how my mother was disabled in the first place. That is another, angrier story.